A few months ago I read an article on Brain Pickings that suggested E.E. Cummings’ Miscellany and Ursula K. Le Guin’s No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters were two books that inspired creativity. Having been in dire need of creativity for quite awhile now, I decided to buy both. Since I like Cummings’ poetry, I decided to start with with his book. Trying to read his essays turned out to be absolutely excruciating; the essays seemed the diametrical opposite of his poetry. I couldn’t finish it.
Undaunted, I started Le Guin’s No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters. I didn’t know much about the author except that she writes fantasy/science fiction novels. It turns out the book is a collection of short essays she posted to a blog for several years; I fell in love with the book. I even regretted that I didn’t know her blog existed when it was active. I would have loved to write about some of the topics she talked about and see how other early bloggers would reply.
The topics in No Time To Spare range from tales of her cat Pard to the sorry state of our Nation. I’m a dog person, not a cat person, but I even found myself enjoying reading about her cat. She brings an original view to everything she writes, even the topic of “old age,” a subject I’m already quite familiar with.
Le Guin discusses old age in an essay entitled “The Diminished Thing.” Most of us who are older and in, relatively, good shape have probably heard this:
A lot of younger people, seeing the reality of old age as entirely negative, see acceptance of age as negative. Wanting to deal with old people in a positive spirit, they’re led to deny old people their reality. With all good intentions, people say to me, “Oh, you’re not old!”
I’ll have to admit that I might have fallen for that line — more than a few times, I’m afraid — because I work out to stay in as good of shape as possible. On the other hand, I complain to some of my older friends who work out that I work out twice as hard as my son/grandson and I’m lucky if I’m in half the shape they are.
Le Guin argues that old age is an “existential situation:”
Old age isn’t a state of mind. It’s an existential situation. Would you say to a person paralyzed from the waist down, “Oh, you aren’t a cripple! You’re only as paralyzed as you think you are! My cousin broke her back once but she got right over it and now she’s in training for the marathon!” Encouragement by denial, however well-meaning, backfires. Fear is seldom wise and never kind. Who is it you’re cheering up, anyhow? Is it really the geezer?
No matter how much I may want to deny it, old age is more than a state of mind. No matter how hard I try I can’t get back into the shape I was when I retired at 57, much less the shape I was at 22 and training daily. I’m not planning on any more five-day-long backpacking trips. No amount of exercise — no amount of rest —seems to make that tightness in my hip go away. I’ve finally reconciled myself to some of the physical limitations of being 77.
Thankfully, Le Guin doesn’t see aging just in terms of loss:
Of course diminishment isn’t all there is to aging. Far from it. Life out of the rat race, but still in the comfort zone, can give the chance to be in the moment, and bring real peace of mind. If memory remains sound and the thinking mind retains its vigor, an old intelligence may have extraordinary breadth and depth of understanding. It’s had more time to gather knowledge and more practice in comparison and judgment. No matter if the knowledge is intellectual or practical or emotional, if it concerns alpine ecosystems or the Buddha nature or how to reassure a frightened child: when you meet an old person with that kind of knowledge, if you have the sense of a bean sprout you know you’re in a rare and irreproducible presence.
Le Guin is, herself, proof that an old person can be a “rare and irreproducible presence.” All you need to do to convince yourself that aging can be positive is read this book. I can’t imagine a better model for what we can all hope to become as we age.